Allen's O's bid is far from easy catch

Ex-Twins outfielder tore up knee in August

February 23, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The play has been executed enough times to become routine. An outfielder runs down a ball hit near the warning track, plants his back leg, cocks his arm and unleashes a throw to his intended target. If he's lucky, the batter stops at second and a rally eventually dies.

For Chad Allen, who's in spring training with the Orioles, more than a rally hung in the balance during an Aug. 14 night in Cleveland. His entire playing career was put on life support, right there in the 11th inning of a tie game.

On the verge of completing his third season with the Minnesota Twins, Allen blew out his right knee in a manner that stunned everyone who witnessed it. He never seemed at risk, with nothing reckless about the chase or his attempt to locate the cut-off man. There wasn't a collision or loose patch of turf, just the freakish nature of the injury.

After collapsing in right field, Allen managed to get up and limp to the ball, preventing Kenny Lofton from circling the bases before trainers rushed to his aid. His anterior cruciate ligament and cartilage were completely torn, necessitating surgery six days later.

"When I tried to throw, my right knee just went the other way on me," said Allen, 27. "Even now I'm still rehabbing, trying to get it healthy. Doctors said it was just that time, where I had so much pressure on the knee that it was time to go."

The Twins felt the same way about Allen. He was transferred to the 60-day disabled list on Aug. 29 and released two months later. Sensing an opportunity with the Orioles, he signed a minor-league contract with an invitation to camp.

Barring an injury or acquisition that could change the landscape, Marty Cordova and Jeff Conine should make most of the starts in the outfield corners, with Chris Singleton playing center field. Allen, bringing more major-league experience than other challengers, could fill one of the last openings on the 25-man roster, especially if the club decides to send young prospects such as Luis Matos, Larry Bigbie and Tim Raines Jr. to Triple-A. It's already certain that Chris Richard will go on the disabled list.

"We've always liked him. He really wore us out in spring training and the times we saw him," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations. "We like the way he goes about his business. He plays hard and his makeup is strong."

The Orioles got an early look at Allen last month during a rehabilitation camp in Sarasota, Fla. "He wasn't ready yet," Thrift said, "but he was determined."

The last of the invitees signed by the Orioles, Allen said the knee is about 90 percent, but he's participating in every drill. He does weight exercises three times a week as part of his rehab.

The sound of the ligament being torn was loud enough that Randy Popple, the Indians' strength and conditioning coach, heard it from the bullpen.

"It felt like somebody shot me in the leg. I thought I broke it," Allen said. "When [Popple] came out, I said, `Did I break my leg?' And he said, `No, I think you just tore your knee up pretty bad.'

"I wouldn't wish it on anybody but that's the way the game goes."

It's also known to give second chances.

"I'm praying to God that he gives me a new start," said Allen, a fourth-round selection in the 1996 draft and son of former NFL defensive back Jack Allen. "I'm going to work as hard as I can to get that new start. I'm doing everything that everybody else is doing. I'm just trying to get that other 10 percent back in the next 1 1/2 months, maybe get the last spot as an outfielder and back up some of these guys and help the team as much as I can."

As a rookie, Allen spent the entire 1999 season with the Twins, batting .277 with 10 homers, 46 RBIs and nine outfield assists. His first major-league hit was a single off Pat Hentgen. But Allen began the next year at Triple-A Salt Lake and appeared in only 15 games with the Twins, who moved young prospects ahead of him. He was batting .263 in 57 games last season before the injury.

"Chad works hard, plays hard. He hustles on the field," said Cordova, a former Twins teammate who witnessed the injury last year in Cleveland. "When he got hurt, it didn't look like he landed that hard, but I guess he tore up his whole knee. It's unfortunate to see somebody get hurt like that."

More than a physical challenge awaits Allen this spring.

"It's always in the back of my mind. `Do I really want to stop?' But the last couple of days, I've tried to go as close to full speed as possible, stopping and cutting, and I haven't felt it yet. I'm just praying that it holds up," he said.

"Everybody tells me it's just a mind thing and you've got to get through it. Doctors tell me I'm probably not going to tear it again. I've just got to get over the first couple months of, `Is it going to go again?' But it's probably not going to."

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